Denzel WashingtonÂs Eli has God on his side and is heading west… (David Lee / Warner Bros. )
I used to think the apocalypse was so tomorrow. Lately at the movies, though, what with "Zombieland" and "2012" and "The Road" and "Daybreakers," the end of the world seems so yesterday. Another day, another sky full of ash. Another ribbon of highway littered with charred vehicles and human remains. While we're on the subject: Why doesn't the apocalypse ever figure into a film like "Leap Year" or "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Where it could really do some narrative good?
This week brings a lean, stark, surprisingly effective headliner in Hollywood's ongoing apoc-a-pala-looza. "The Book of Eli" marks a return to form for co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes, who bill themselves as the Hughes Brothers.
Their résumé includes the vivid, juicy "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," and what they've made here, from a script by Gary Whitta, is a sly Old Testament "Mad Max"-y sort of Western, pitting star and producer Denzel Washington as a high plains drifter with God on his side against Gary Oldman as the entrepreneur ruling a makeshift dirty town somewhere in what's left of the southwestern United States.
It's 30 years after the big blast, or whatever it was that caused the trouble. Armed with bow, arrow, rifle and machete, Eli is making his way west, because he has been told this is where he must go to save what's left of humanity. (Poor Viggo Mortensen in "The Road" -- he was told to head south!)
Oldman's character, Carnegie, the old-timer who controls the water supply, is searching for a certain special book, the one being protected by Eli. It's not much of a spoiler: Early on you figure it's either the Bible or "Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balancing Your Hormones for a Hot and Healthy Body."
What I appreciate about "The Book of Eli" is its scale. Shot on nimble, lightweight Red digital cameras, the film may traffic in familiar landscapes and archetypes, but it allows its cast the space and time to make the characters breathe.
The dirty town's inhabitants include Jennifer Beals as Carnegie's blind mistress; Mila Kunis as her daughter, a reluctant tool of Carnegie's and eventually an acolyte of Eli's; and in a deft supporting role, Tom Waits as the local "engineer" and pawnshop owner, thrilled to pieces when Eli shows up bearing KFC moist towelettes.
The movie operates as a series of set pieces, one standout being Eli's visit to a survivalist couple's homestead. Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour, two of England's most distinguished hambones, play "George" and "Martha," and though they come and go quickly in a hail of bullets, they're worth the detour.
The Hughes Brothers aren't above clichés such as the hero's slo-mo strut toward the camera (that old thing), but editor Cindy Mollo has the sense not to cut on the obvious beat every chance she gets.
Eli's first full-on slaughter of bloodthirsty roadside thugs is shown in a cleverly sustained single take, in silhouette. Very satisfying. Gory, but satisfying.
For some, this genre picture will come with the bonus of its conspicuous and heavy-duty religiosity.
It is about the Word and who controls it. But "The Book of Eli" works, even if the preservation of Christianity isn't high on your personal post-apocalypse bucket list. Establishing its storytelling rules clearly and well, the film simply is better, and better-acted, than the average end-of-the-world fairy tale.
By the way, the next one, "Legion," is due in a week.